Zoe walks quietly beside me on our daily outing to check out the farm animals. Her sparse white fur, once thick and too heavy for the Florida weather, stands up as she growls when the rooster comes closer than she
wants. He chooses to walk away, more out of habit than fear, and we continue our walk. She used to walk out a bit more, as if needing to protect me, but now stays close, knowing that the goats will find her an easy target if she is not close by. I make every effort to ensure that she keeps her confidence, although at her age, it’s more from me than her capability. Her age shows, but more from the cancer that is trying to pull her from me, than from the years themselves. Zoe is very sick now, but 10 years ago when she came into our lives, she was a young, energetic, and terrified little white fluff.
I was helping with rescues by offering training rehab to help with placement. Jackie called, begging me to help with a miniature American Eskimo dog. She had been in the shelter for her time allotment and no one could handle her. Jackie didn’t think she was actually vicious, but rather very scared and therefore self protective. I trusted Jackie’s assessment and arrangements were made for Zoe to make the trip via a couple of volunteer transporters.
Steve took the carrier out of his car and warned me, “No one can actually handle her so I’m not sure how you will get her out.”
“Oh, we won’t worry about that, will we little girl” I said softly and snapped my leash onto her collar. She was obviously extremely tense, but seemed to relax as soon as it was attached. I thanked him for his help in getting her to us and went to our car. Fortunately, my son had offered to drive that day as Zoe became an instant attachment to me. She clung to me the entire 60 mile drive to our home, as if I was the only safe entity in her life. My reading was correct; she just needed to be able to trust someone, without feeling fear or anger from them.
A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.
— Josh Billings
Once home, I kept her on leash which seemed to comfort her. She stayed ever close to me, choosing to nestle close to my neck when I sat on the sofa and following me around the house and outside as if she were attached to my leg. She had decided that we were a heart bound team.
To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring – it was peace.
Other family members were allowed to pet her, but I was her person. Weeks went by and it became increasingly obvious that Zoe was not being retrained for adoption; Zoe was already home. She had found her family. Other dogs would pass thru the training process and be adopted out, but Zoe was not transferring again.
I knew that she had been abused as a pup, but still don’t know all the details. From her behaviors, I have pieced together some probabilities. At least one abuser was a man with a hat. She went from calm and peaceful to a terrified rage when she saw any man wearing a hat. It took a long time to desensitize her to that image and even now, 10 years later, she reacts, though much more calmly choosing to move closer to me.
Another image that we just chose to avoid repeating was a man with a belt. She was laying on the floor by me one day when Devin took off his belt to change it for another. As he raised it over his head (pulling it out of the loops) Zoe went from peacefully relaxed to attack mode and charged at him. I don’t know if she would have actually bitten him; I grabbed her before she got to him. His naturally calm demeanor helped greatly as he put the belt down and knelt down to reassure her. The entire incident was a mere few seconds, but it gave us further insight into what must have happened to her in the past. She calmed immediately, realizing that this was not the same person, but we decided to avoid belts around her as it was obviously terrifying to her and not something she would need to deal with normally.
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Her confidence in people had obviously been shaken as a pup and it took many weeks before she seemed to trust anyone but me, but eventually she became more comfortable around the rest of our family, beginning with my oldest son, Devin. That turned out to be quite helpful when the 2004 hurricanes came through.
We lost part of the roof with hurricane Frances and then hurricane Jean came through, causing much greater damage to an already weakened structure. Zoe was by my side, not rattled by the hurricanes themselves, as long as I was there. We stayed for a few days, but decided we needed to get the kids to a motel when mold began growing. Devin stayed at the farm in a camper to keep track of all the animals. I made the very tough decision to leave Zoe with him, along with the other dogs and animals. I trusted Devin completely, but hoped that Zoe would also.
Thankfully, she was able to understand and adjust. She was always very happy to see me on our visits, but was relaxed and comfortable when we left again. Our lives were in limbo for the next 8 months and Zoe not only remained with Devin on the farm, but was actually able to form a closer bond with him than she had when I was there. She still considered me her person when I was there, but he was her back up when I was gone. I considered that a huge achievement!
Devin used his time with her to find some of her many talents. With all of the damage, rats became an issue in the feed room. Zoe was up for the task of keeping them away for the simple reward of a “good dog, Zoe” and a piece of cheese! As she gained self confidence, she rose to the pack leader status and helped Devin keep harmony about the farm. The extra responsibility seemed to help her confidence even more, and she grew mentally and emotionally into quite a companion.
We decided to sell our damaged farm and buy another, this one larger and a little further from the coast. After many months, we were finally all together and Zoe was able to follow me around as we investigated our new home. She slept on our bed, as she had before, but was always up early in the morning with me, enjoying her new home life.
He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart.
She developed new skills on our larger farm and thoroughly enjoyed each day at my side. Keeping free ranging chickens in their allotted areas, convincing goats to stay on their side of the fence, and keeping snakes away as we moved through the fields, she was full of energy and loved the outdoors. Once inside, she’d stay next to me as I progressed through our house chores, always watching to stay within sight of me. One friend noted that such attentiveness would never work for her; I replied that Zoe and I were just buddies that enjoyed our every moment together. She seemed to know which direction I was heading next, almost before I did.
When we traveled to adopt from Russia, she stayed steadily by Devin, never questioning the transition. As soon as I returned, she was by my side again.
Her ability to read my thoughts and emotions was never in question, but even more dramatized when my Mom was in an accident. For the six and a half weeks that she was in ICU, I spent most days at the hospital, coming home late each day, filled with the stress of dealing with the entire situation. Zoe waited for me by the door and followed me to my favorite chair. She offered consoling licks and would jump into my lap when I felt the need of a hug. When tears came forth, she gently pressed against me in her version of a hug. On the stressful nights, she cuddled up against me even closer. She mourned with me when my Mom died, even though she was not there at the time. She knew. She could read me.
When my gallbladder flared, she slept pressed against my back. She seemed to know that the gentle warmth was just what was needed.
Was she perfect? No, of course not. She had those moments of barking when she was not comfortable with someone near. She never completely trusted most people and I was always guarded when others were around. She had never bitten anyone that I knew of, certainly not when with us, but I didn’t want a first time. The fear that had been instilled in her as a pup never completely left her. She did learn to ignore hats, though she never totally relaxed around them. Like an abused child, she learned to adapt over the years, but she never completely forgot.
Her most important skill, beyond that of my friend, was that of our pack alpha. Our pack at that time consisted of poodles, my adult daughter’s maltese, an old whippet, and my adult son’s bassets; hardly a formidable task, but one that was essential to keep everyone balanced and happy. Not everyone understands the role of a true alpha dog; Zoe had developed the confidence to keep harmony by just a look or a slight growl. Her body language and Border Collie like stare was enough to keep everyone peaceful and in line.
A favorite story of mine took place when she was about 4. One of my sons and I were planting in the field and she was at my side, as always. We had brought pizza slices out for a quick lunch as storms were threatening to halt our progress and then we both decided we needed to get supplies. He set his slice on a table and ran to the house. Upon returning, we saw Zoe sitting under the table growling ever so slightly. A couple of the other dogs were watching her from a distance, looking quite intently toward the table. That was typical of Zoe; she would guard my food without touching it. We could leave dinner on the table to tend to a farm issue and it was always there, untouched, when we returned, as long as Zoe was in the house. She knew her position as alpha dog and was quite content to be sub-alpha to me. In fact, I think it was her preferred position.
She had a healthy respect for our family cat. Princess would swat dogs, mercilessly. Zoe stayed out of her reach, but was quick to alert the other dogs of her presence. Again, alpha. Protecting her pack. Guiding the household. Keeping it running smoothly. I relied on her without hesitation and she never let me down.
When my daughter and son brought a new dog into the household, she jumped to the task of training. Housetraining? Not a problem. Zoe was there to help. Teach them house manners? Of course, already begun. Teach them the perimeter and where they are allowed? Done!
She was 9 years old when the tumor first appeared. It was small, about the size of a dime, but it had already attached and she was showing mild signs of health problems from it. Within a couple of months, it was larger than a quarter and she was slowing down a bit. By vet accounts, she had about 6 months, maybe less. But Zoe never trusted vets.
I switched her foods, added natural supplements, and boosted her immune system in every natural way possible. The stress of surgery was not an option for several reasons, but I was determined to try to help her beat this, or at the very least, keep her happy and comfortable.
Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault, really.
There were many ups and downs. She would seem a little weaker, I’d switch supplements and foods around, hoping for improvement. More due to time, I think, she would get a little better, then a little worse. At the one year mark, I felt that we had accomplished a major feat. Not only had she passed the one year, but she was still very happy and mostly pain free. She was not as strong as she had been prior to the cancer, and we still had not defeated it, but she was still in the game.
As sometimes happens, my son’s dog, an older golden retriever aptly named Angel, had developed cancer that quickly spread throughout her body. I followed a similar protocol with her, and her “at most 3 months” stretched for a full year. Zoe and Angel had never been buddies, though I wouldn’t call them foes. They just seemed to accept each other’s presence. The day that Angel died, I sat near her, comforting her, knowing it was time. Zoe chose to snuggle next to Angel, as if to comfort her the way she had always consoled me. As Angel passed, Zoe stayed by her, refusing to leave until we finally moved Angel for burial. Most things that dogs do don’t surprise me; I’m very attuned to them. That final act of love left me in more tears.
The average dog has one request to all humankind. Love me.
Almost 8 months after Angel’s death, Zoe’s tumor grew suddenly and her appetite, which had not been tremendous for several months, decreased sharply. I knew that the cancer had spread further into her organs and we were losing the battle, but I wasn’t giving up until Zoe decided to. She kept trying. So did I.
August came and I found myself buying all kinds of specialty meats in an attempt to get her to eat. She liked salmon (wild caught seemed like the most nutritious approach) and chicken (organic, to avoid any further stresses on her system) She had always loved steamed veggies, especially broccoli, and I continued to feed her those, though she ate little. Weight loss was a concern, but it was keeping her hydrated that proved the biggest challenge.
The week of August 10th, she was much weaker and I made the decision to stay with her at all times. She was still able to go outside for a minute at a time, but needed help getting back and forth. I steadied her for a while, then went to carrying her when needed. She was accepting of my help and I tried not to make her feel less capable.
I took her to bed on Saturday, placing her carefully on the bedding I had prepared for her beside my bed. She had always slept in my bed with me, but the last couple of weeks she had decided to stay on the floor on pillows, unable to easily get on and off the bed, even with the aid of the steps I had prepared weeks earlier. I prayed that she would see the morning sun with me. She did.
I’m an early riser and Sunday was even earlier. I wanted to have every moment with Zoe that I could. She raised her head and tried to get up, but was obviously too weak to walk outside. I carried her outside for a few minutes in the grass, then carried her back to the living room where she snuggled next to me on the sofa. Her eyes told me that she knew our time was short. I petted her, comforted her, offered her water…we just spent time together. Family members refreshed my coffee and enabled me to stay with her.
It was just after 3pm when she went to sleep, very peacefully, her head resting on my lap. My incredible sadness was tempered slightly by the flood of memories we shared. Each day, I’m acutely aware of her absence, yet comforted by the memories. Until we meet again, rest easy Zoe; you’ve earned it.
Update: Another Eskie has joined our home– I’ll be posting updates of MARSHMALLOW soon! Marshmallow is not Zoe, and I wouldn’t want her to be a duplicate, but she is a wonderfully sweet little girl (thus the sugary name) who really needed a home where she would be loved. Welcome Home Marshmallow!
It came to me that every time I lose a dog they take a piece of my heart with them. And every new dog who comes into my life, gifts me with a piece of their heart. If I live long enough, all the components of my heart will be dog, and I will become as generous and loving as they are.